It should not be taken for granted that the Virgin Islands is today financially self-sufficient or that the government’s finances are managed by a finance minister appointed from among the elected representatives of the House of Assembly. This was not always the case.
At the introduction of ministerial government in 1967, finance was not a portfolio devolved to the elected government. It remained under the United Kingdom-appointed governor, who also oversaw Britain’s financial assistance to the territory, referred to as grant-in-aid.
By 1971, the VI was in a deep recession and the government remained dependent upon Britain to fund its large budget deficit. However, through prudence and determination, the coalition governments led by the late Chief Minister Dr. Willard Wheatley between 1971-75 (with Dr. Wheatley, the VI Democratic Party and the United Party) and 1975-79 (with Dr. Wheatley and the VI Party), steered the territory out of recession and into a robust economic recovery from 1974 onward.
The exceptional public management of this period encouraged Britain to follow through on turning over responsibility for the finance portfolio from the governor to the elected government under the stewardship of the chief minister. On June 1, 1977, Dr. Wheatley became the VI’s first finance minister.
By 1978, the government independently closed the budget deficit and ended the year with a budget surplus of $1.3 million. This eliminated the need for further financial assistance from Britain and officially brought an end to grant-in-aid in the territory more than two decades after the VI became a British colony in its own right.
At the end of the subsequent budget year (1979), the surplus grew to $2.7 million on the continued growth of revenue from tourism and a rebound in construction.
The territory has since remained financially self-sufficient as successive governments have generally run budget surpluses or balanced budgets.
Financial autonomy was the next critical step in the VI’s march toward greater self-determination, which was preceded by the introduction of ministerial government in 1967 and the restoration of the legislature (then the Legislative Council) in 1950.
The new finance portfolio endowed the elected government with the fiscal and regulatory authority that positioned the VI to later reinvent the financial services industry after the termination of the VI-United States double taxation treaty in 1981.
As chief minister, Dr. Wheatley and his various ministers (Oliver Cills, Conrad Maduro, Dr. Q. William Osborne, Alban Anthony, and H. Lavity Stoutt) deserve much credit for their steadfast leadership that ensured the territory became financially self-sufficient and gained its financial autonomy. This of course could not have been achieved without the dedication of the numerous public servants who worked tirelessly in the national interest.
The 40th anniversary of the end of grant-in-aid is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the VI’s financial independence, which remains a key pillar of the self-determination of the territory.
Mr. Wheatley is a policy fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge and the former Virgin Islands representative to the United Kingdom and European Union.